Interview with Brad Colbow
Brad Colbow is a web designer, illustrator, and comic creator from Cleveland, Ohio. He's known for creating vector style illustrations and working this style into his web design. He talks about information style comics, networking, and numerous other awesome topics in this interview. Let's take a step into Brad's brain!
1. Hello Brad, please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from, what training do you have, and how did you got started in the field? How long have you been illustrating, creating comics, making websites, and designing?
I'm a freelance designer in Cleveland, Ohio. I've been a designer/illustrator for about 10 years and have been on my own for the last two. In school I studied advertising and minored in graphic design. I graduated right at the peak of the dot-com bubble and fell kind of backwards into web design. I knew the software and a little tiny bit about HTML and that's all it took to get a decent job.
I've been drawing comics since I was a kid. When I was in high school I wanted to draw superhero comics, but I was never a good enough illustrator so I gravitated towards traditional newspaper comic strips like "Calvin and Hobbes" and "Bloom County." My first serious attempt at drawing a comic strip was in 2000, I created a web comic for a humor website some friends from school ran. The strip was set in God's in-house PR department in heaven. It was absolutely dreadful. Not only was it completely unfunny but it managed to offend pretty much everyone who was brave enough to read it.
2. How long did it take you to get a foothold in the industry and establish some regular clients? Did you get experience working at agencies before going freelance? Do you still do work for agencies or is it more individual companies now? What key business decisions have had a positive impact on your business?
I worked at a couple different agencies before setting out on my own. I gained some great experience and put some big name companies in my portfolio before I ever landed a client of my own. Once I started moonlighting as a freelancer the clients came pretty quick. I started by thinking local. I met a lot of people at meetups and in local professional organizations.
Once I started spending my evenings and weekends working and didn't have room to take on new clients, I knew I could support myself full-time as a freelancer. It was a pretty gradual thing that happened over the course of about a year. Now that I've been doing this awhile, I find that most of the work I do is designing websites/user interfaces for web developers and start-ups.
The best thing I did for myself was redesign my website (colbowdesign.com) before going solo. It got in a couple CSS galleries and really kick started my business. It put my work in front of people all over the place not just in my home town so I had a lot more projects to choose from right when I needed them the most.
3. Does your work tend to focus more on web design, illustrations, comics, or various other projects? What's that happy mix for you with balancing various types of creative projects?
Definitely web design, I usually only take on illustration work if it's part of a larger project. A lot of the illustration leads that come to me are for small one off jobs and the smaller, the job the harder it is to get a feel for how long the project will really take. Web projects tend to be larger and have a couple different phases. One part of a design might take longer due to a lot of changes, and you can cut some fat from another part of the project to make up for it. If the client doesn't like your first take or two on an illustration you can quickly find yourself in over your head. I have a lot of respect for Illustrators who can make a full time job doing that.
I really love drawing, and having side projects like the comic give me a big creative outlet that you don't always have in client work. It's become my own personal playground. Every week is a chance to try a new drawing style or do something in Illustrator I've never done before. It keeps things fresh and a lot of the experiments that don't work out as well as I had hoped in the comic often find their way more successfully in my client work later on.
4. How often are you able to incorporate your vector style illustrations into client web work? Has your site design or comics led to web design requests?
Yeah, totally. I've gotten a lot of requests to do more vector illustration for sites since my comic site went live earlier this year. It's pretty cool when someone comes to you for a project based on what you've done in the past. Those clients tend to be the best to work with. I do some contract work through agencies, and they use me because we've worked together in the past . My style doesn't always mesh with what their clients want because they chose that agency based on different factors than if someone comes directly to me for work.
5. Could you tell us about your character design process? Is the process similar whether you're creating characters for a comic or for a client website? How important is a back story? How do you develop your characters personalities?
If I'm drawing a real person I really want to make sure they look like the person I'm drawing. Jeremy Keith, Kyle Steed or Aaron Izzari have to look kinda like their real life counterparts. For the comic the regular characters evolve over time and take on a personality. Hector the pig is a good example, he started out looking more like a pig, now he has big floppy ears because they are fun to draw.
Early on one of the things I wanted to do with the comic was find a personality for the regular characters. I'm slowly getting there and as the personalities evolve so do the character's visual appearance. The side characters are totally different. There is absolutely no thought put into them whatsoever. I can just whip them out and try different things because I never have to worry about drawing them from a bunch of different angles.
6. Could you tell us about your artistic influences? What artists or designers have had the greatest impact on you? What consistently inspires you today? What are your favorite websites?
I feel like I have to mention Scott McCloud because I've totally ripped off his story telling style for my long form info-comics. I got his book, Understanding Comics, right around the time I was losing interest in comic books. I haven't been influenced by his art as much as his story telling and the way he's dissected the comics genre. Scott's TED talk from a few years ago is one of my favorites and worth checking out. He also mentioned one of my comics on his blog once, that was a quite an honor.
Another artists that I drew a lot influence from is Jeff Smith who created an epic comic called Bone. Bone is the greatest comic ever written IMHO. Incredibly illustrated and masterfully written. It's like Lord of the Rings told in comic form with Disney characters. My description makes it sound pretty lame, but it's comic storytelling at its best. I guess I'm drawn to storytelling aspect of the medium of comics just as much as art.
7. You recently created "Misunderstanding Markup: XHTML 2/HTML 5 Comic Strip" for Smashing Magazine and of course you created "The Brads – Learning About Contrast in Design" for us as well. Do you see yourself doing more of this type of work in the future? How would you define this type of information focused cartoon and how did you develop this approach?
You sent me these questions the day before my latest informational comic about personas for Carsonified's blog went live. I absolutely love doing these. It gives me an excuse to talk about geeky stuff with people I admire in the web design industry. I learned so much about user research, mental models and personas working with Indi Young on this latest comic.
I'm fascinated with comics as a communication medium. This spring while I was thinking about what else I could do with "The Brads," I came across this comic about cancer research. I don't have any interest in reading anything on this topic but since it was a comic I read it. In 3 minutes I learned more about cancer research than I ever thought I could and it made perfect sense. That's amazing to me. There are a lot of web design articles out there like the ones published on A List Apart that have great content but I usually don't finish reading, they are just too dense for me to read while sitting in front of a computer. I want to bring this kind of dense information into a comic to make it more palatable for people with short attention spans like me.
8. Since creating the tutorial "Inking and Coloring the Comic Strip 'The Brads' " has your processed changed? Are there any other comic styles you're experimenting with? What future plans do you have for the Brad's?
That was almost a year ago. Before that tutorial ran only a handful of people read the comic and I had just a couple of comics drawn. Pretty much everything has changed with my drawing process since then. Those early comics were drawn with a mouse using the pen tool in Illustrator and now I'm using the paintbrush tool with a tablet mostly. That's a huge shift in speed and style. The black outlines are thinner now. With thinner outlines you have to be more precise with the colors underneath and the tablet has increased my speed and accuracy with that stuff. I've also played around with color fill filters in Photoshop to speed up the process.
I have a library of heads and bodies I've used over the last year so now I can pull a new comic together in under an hour if I have to. I also play around with drawing in Photoshop. That's always fun, but I like the flexibility of vectors. I have been starting to work with different colored outlines and more detailed backgrounds since I don't have to spend as much time drawing the characters.
9. How effective do you find networking in person? Are there any must attend conferences or meetups in your area? What's a good mix between your online and face-to-face networking? Could you tell us the recent get together at GoMedia you attended?
I work from my house most of the time so I like to get out and meet people. The GoMedia event was a blast. I don't think I've ever seen that much talent gathered in one place at one time before. Seeing the work of guys like Angryblue and Chad Lenjer up close was awe inspiring. Not to mention people I've talked with online but never met like @adellecharles, @chadengle, @georgecoghill, @joshsmibert, and @jefffinley. I'm not sure how I got included on such an exclusive list of people but I'm grateful that I was.
The Cleveland area has a pretty tight knit tech community and a lot of different meet-ups and groups. I'm one of the founding members of the Cleveland Web Standards Association. We started up a couple years ago when table based design was the norm. It really felt like Cleveland was lagging behind the rest of the world in the switch to web standards. We started the group to evangelize but have changed gears into more of an educational group as standards have become the norm. One of the best parts of helping to organize a group like this is finding cool local venues to hold our meetings. Over the summer we met at Lean Dog, an agile software developer whose office is a big boat on the shore of Lake Erie.
10. Could you tell us about your collaboration experiences. Is there a project that was particularly successful because of a collaborative effort? What was your role in the project?
I collaborate on almost everything I do. Brad Dielman (the other Brad in the comic) is the guy I talk about the most because we're a tight team and have worked on a lot of projects together. I do a lot of work with a collection of freelancers called Sprokets. We get together and work on projects that are too big for one person. We've been working on a site called 10 Best Things over the last year. The information architecture that I've been working from is so detailed and thought out that it makes my job designing almost too easy. The front end developer (Dan Ott) blows my mind every time we work together, anything I dream up he can create with jQuery. Working with people at the top of their game really pushes you to do your best work.
11. What are your plans for the future? Any creative work coming up, or that you're currently working on, that you're excited about?
My next info-comic is a bit of an internet history lesson, I'm still working on the rough draft so I'm not exactly sure who I'll be working with or how it will turn out. I also have a couple really cool client projects going on. One is for the New York Artexpo. We finished the basic site and are working on a lot of cool new stuff and I just started on a new project for WooThemes, and it's not a theme. I'm also working on some illustrations for Huffduffer, one of Jeremy Keith's side projects.
12. Thanks for the interview Brad! Any parting words?
Thanks for the opportunity Sean!
Brad on the Web
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